When should you combo off and dump all your resources into a key turn? If your opponent has an answer, you’ll lose everything, including probably the game, but if you succeed you’ll win on the spot. Talk about a risky proposition, huh? How do you decide when to pull the trigger on these situations? Some pros, like Reid Duke, have made a great case for when you should play safe or aggressively—minimize risk when you’re ahead, and be bold when you’re behind. Today I want to put the question into practice and ask: “Should I go for it?”
Here’s an example from a recent Gatecrash draft. As you can see, I’m in one of the final turns of the game, and I’ve been behind the whole time—but now have a superior board presence. I have some options here. I can play my creature and hold back. If my opponent doesn’t have a way to get rid of some blockers, they can’t attack at all and I’ve stabilized. My second option is to go for it and rumble with everything to try and kill my opponent before they can build up a board and win a longer game.
This is a pretty important choice. One plan leads to a longer game where I might or might not be favored, and the other ends the game on the spot with a win or loss. I’m all in at that point. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether or not I prefer taking the game long or short. Rather, I just want to maximize my win percentage in the given situation. Here’s a little secret, though: You can’t control everything. That’s a critical point. There are many cards I can die to if I go all in, but if I have a better chance of winning right now by going for the win, I should do so. My opponent only has one card in hand and gets a draw step to win, but any way to break through later will cause my Griffins to die and also might just kill me on the spot. Attacking with all my creatures actually gives me a good chance to win here as long as I think through the attack and I’m not acting recklessly.
But what if my opponent draws Madcap Skills or Massive Raid (and has another Mountain), and just kills me? That’s a great question—but a better question is, “can I effectively play around these cards that kill me”? If I want to play around Massive Raid, I need to play my Griffin and hold everything back. If I attack with my other Griffin, my opponent Raids my Infantry, attacks and kills my other Griffin, dealing me 4 damage and I can’t block for the turn. Ouch! I also can’t really ever attack effectively unless I topdeck in the next few turns. If my opponent has Madcap Skills, they put it on Armored Transport and I’ll soon be in The Abyss. I’m not beating these cards in this spot, so I should ignore them.
If you studied the screenshot, you might have noticed that I haven’t given you all the necessary information up to this point. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the words not included are what happened with my opponent’s Martial Glory and Boros Charm. In a game, your opponent will show you a lot of their plans through the cards they play. If Martial Glory was used as a simple Lava Spike and Boros Charm was used to double strike or deal 4, I’d know my opponent was trying to close the game quickly and I’d have to be more cognizant of any further burst damage. These plays would more likely make my opponent’s last card a sorcery or instant that affects the board or my life total. They weren’t in fact used this way, my opponent was trying to protect the creatures they had in order to try and help close the game with them. This is a sign of weakness, and indicates that I can more easily turn the corner and become the aggressor.
Going for a kill is another example of understanding how context and sequencing impact your in-game decisions. Every moving piece will point to a different answer to your question, “should I go for it?” The Madcap Skills in my hand is what lets me be aggressive, but it also isn’t very good here in a long game. If I put it on a Griffin, that Griffin will die to Bomber Corps (as long as they can make a reasonable attack). I can’t put it on my Warmind Infantry, my best blocker, or Ember Beast, which forces me to attack with more creatures when I’m already on the back foot. The second Assault Griffin is merely a deterrent creature. It also gets shot down and doesn’t profitably contribute to a long-game plan despite giving me an evasive way to close the game. Thus, I’m forced to leverage the strengths I do have and force the game to a faster conclusion because it gives me a much better chance to win.
But if you replace the Assault Griffin in hand with something as simple as a Towering Thunderfist, suddenly the equation changes. I have another good blocker that also pressures well on the ground. Then I might be able to suit up one of my ground attackers with Madcap Skills, and I’m much better off against one of my opponent’s previous outs, Massive Raid. Here I’m fine to let the game go an extra turn or two, and I shouldn’t just go for a kill because it opens me up to too much unnecessary risk.
Going all in is uncomfortable, but in the end it doesn’t really matter whether or not you win or lose that exact game. What matters is how you came to the decision you made, and if it was a reasonable choice at the time. You’ll also feel bad most of the time when you go for a win from behind, because you moved your win percentage from 10% to 15% through a good play. That means you will still lose that game a lot! Be proud of your decision if it is well reasoned, and check yourself after the fact to make sure you did in fact make a good choice.
One danger that emerges when you start thinking through your plays is that you may start falsely claiming you made a good play that just went poorly, when in fact your play was wrong. Remember to analyze your situations, but still be accountable. You won’t be perfect, but no one is. Constantly learning is the most important thing you can do to improve. At the same time, remember that you can’t control everything, and if you make a great play and your opponent topdecks their out, accept it. You’ll be a better player because of it. Don’t be afraid to go for it when the time is right.